April 27th, 2011
11:10 AM ET
By John L. Allen, Jr., CNN Senior Vatican Analyst
Rome (CNN) – John Paul II was a rock star of a pope, arguably the most effective ambassador of religious belief in a highly secular age. Yet in the years since his death in April 2005 an undercurrent of doubt and concern has emerged related to his handling of the problem of priestly sex abuse, the most serious crisis to rock Catholicism in centuries.
New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd recently articulated the verdict among some detractors of the late pope: “How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?”
While ambivalence about his record on the abuse crisis may not call into question his personal holiness or his towering accomplishments, it’s become an unavoidable chapter of the John Paul story, representing probably the single biggest question mark as his Sunday beatification - the final step before formal sainthood – approaches.
Critics point both to policies and to individual cases which, they believe, illustrate a pattern of denial on John Paul’s watch.
In the handful of instances during the John Paul years in which local bishops tried to formally expel abusers from the priesthood, in a process known as laicization, the Vatican often urged caution – not to excuse abuse, but to defend the priesthood.
Key officials in John Paul’s papacy also expressed reservations about policies that would have required reporting abuse to police.
A Colombian Cardinal whom John Paul tapped to head a Vatican office responsible for policy questions about the priesthood, Darío Castrillón Hoyos, actually wrote to a French bishop in 2001 to congratulate him for refusing to report a priest charged with abuse.
Castrillón was also the official behind a now-infamous 1997 Vatican letter to the Irish bishops expressing opposition to their “mandatory reporter” policy.
The case of the late Mexican priest Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a religious order called the Legionaries of Christ, is often cited by critics. In 2006, the Legionaries acknowledged that Maciel had been guilty of sexual abuse of former members, as well as having children out of wedlock with women with whom he maintained long-term relationships.
Over the years, Maciel was a favorite of John Paul II because of his loyalty to Rome and his success in generating vocations to the priesthood.
A similar case involves Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna, Austria, who died in 2003. Groer resigned in 1995 after facing charges of abuse, but was not subjected to a church penalty.
In May 2010, Groer’s successor as Cardinal of Vienna, Christoph Schonborn, said that a top official under John Paul II had blocked the investigation. (Schonborn later apologized for publicly reprimanding a fellow cardinal, but never retracted the charge.)
Defenders of John Paul II generally make two points.
First, they say, the Church has been on a learning curve about priestly sex abuse and that it’s unfair to judge John Paul by today’s standards.
In fact, it was John Paul II who kick-started the process of chuch reform in 2001 by issuing a new set of rules centralizing responsibility for the crisis in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a powerful doctrinal office headed at the time by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict XVI. John Paul also approved an expedited process for weeding abusers out of the priesthood.
If things slowed down from 2001 to 2005, they say, that’s largely explicable by the late pope’s long illness as a result of his Parkinson’s disease – a period in which his primary contribution was no longer governance, but offering the world an example of how to bear suffering with dignity.
Second, his fans argue, the crisis has to be understood in the context of John Paul’s reform of the Catholic priesthood. By 1978, when John Paul was elected, more than 45,000 men had left the priesthood since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
John Paul turned that around, offering a compelling personal example of priestly life and inspiring a new generation eager to stand “in the person of Christ.” Priests who take that charge seriously, defenders of John Paul II say, are less likely to commit abuse.
To focus on individual cases such as Maciel rather than on John Paul’s overall approach to priestly life, according to papal biographer George Weigel, is “grotesquely disproportionate from any serious historical point of view.”
There’s no reason to believe the Catholic sexual abuse crisis is nearing an end. Just days ago, a federal judge in Oregon directed the Vatican to turn over documents in a lawsuit related to a priest accused of abuse who died in 1992. It’s the first time an American court has issued such an order, and it could trigger a diplomatic row, since the Vatican is a sovereign state under international law.
Such ferment will likely keep debate over John Paul’s record alive among victims, lawyers, historians and pundits.
So far, however, that debate doesn’t seem to be putting much of a dent in popular enthusiasm for the former pope. A Marist College/Knights of Columbus poll released this week found that 74% of Americans, and 90% of American Catholics, regard John Paul II as a worthy candidate for beatification.
In Rome, more than two million people are expected to take part in beatification-related activities this week, and there’s a cottage industry of new books, calendars, keychains, documentaries, and other paraphernalia memorializing John Paul II.
The Vatican has always insisted that declaring a pope a saint isn’t to ratify every policy choice of his pontificate. Rather, it means that despite whatever failures occurred, he was at bottom a holy man. When it comes to John Paul II, plenty of people still seem eager to say, “Amen.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.